So, Jerry and Dorrit, what exactly do you contribute?

Check any glossy's masthead page these days and there'll be a phalanx of celebrity 'contributing editors'. But editing is the one thing they don't do.
  • @davidlister1

Celebrity contributing editors don't edit. If they play their cards right, they might avoid actually contributing. But by their very presence on a glossy's masthead, they make a contribution.

Celebrity contributing editors don't edit. If they play their cards right, they might avoid actually contributing. But by their very presence on a glossy's masthead, they make a contribution.

For all the philosophical and semantic confusion, the celebrity contributing editor seems to be one of the big growth areas in journalism. This month's GQ has no fewer than 37 contributing editors (and over 20 "contributing photographers"); Esquire, with a nice line in contributing one-upmanship, boasts contributing editors, contributing writers, contributing photographers and contributing illustrators. It lacks only the contributing classified sales girl.

Condé Nast Traveller magazine has 22 contributing editors, including Bridget Jones author, Helen Fielding, though there is no sign of her in the current issue. Tatler only has 10, but with Tom Wolfe and Jerry Hall among them, they'd liven up most editorial conferences.

Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, reaches for his gun when he sees too big a name on a list of contributing editors. "Some magazines use contributing editors as a way of flattering themselves, which I find vaguely pathetic," he says. "There are some mags in Britain which still have Martin Amis and Hunter S Thompson on the mastheads when they haven't written for them for decades - it's ridiculous!"

But Tatler editor Geordie Greig, who insists he pays his contributing editors only "the most minimal retainer", says they are essential for a magazine like his. "They are ambassadors, and the injectors of ideas to a staff that spends a lot of time in the office. I speak to Tom Wolfe every 10 days or so. And we have Dorrit Moussiaeff, who is the most connected person in England. I went to dinner at her place and I walked in to see Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Ilie Nastase."

One gets the impression that Moussiaeff may only have a nodding acquaintance with subbing, but that's not the point, Greig stresses. "My contributing editors are there to open windows which shed some creative, sexual and metaphysical light on to Tatler." Greig also believes in updating contributing editors regularly, and is surprised that some magazines keep "stale" ones for years.

Greig appoints contributing editors on the hoof, making his recent celebrity interviewee Jerry Hall one on the spot. "I was so impressed with her," he says. "This girl who keeps James Joyce at her bedside and is knowledgeable about the catwalk and rock'n'roll and is a mother. We do talk a lot on the telephone."

Dylan Jones, whose contributing editors, give or take a chef, are not celebrities but well-known working journalists, also believes that there is a genuine role for contributing editors. "Used properly, they can be the lifeblood of a magazine," he says. "At GQ, we use ours properly; we consult them on what we're doing with the magazine, give them plum jobs, and treat them with respect. You'd be surprised how much it means to some people. Recently I took someone off the masthead who hadn't contributed anything all year, and as soon as the issue hit the streets he was on the phone to pitch an idea."

But an equally revealing view of the contributing editor's role comes from a contributing editor with Condé Nast Traveller. Preferring to remain anonymous, as contributing-editor lunches are not to be sneezed at, he says: "The last thing one does is any actual editing. The only difference that being a contributing editor makes is that you get paid a 50 per cent higher lineage rate for pieces you write. I was asked originally for ideas. I came up with some but I liked them so much myself I said I wanted to write them. And you are expected to attend lunches from time to time, but that's no hardship."

And once a journalist has done the contributing editor gig, what next? My eye is caught by the masthead page of Marie Claire. It doesn't seem to have a single contributing editor; but it does have something called an Ideas Department. That sounds like a good place to work. Provided it comes with lunch.